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Drinking woman's memoir both revealing and reticent

Posted: 09/28/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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There's been a rash of "women who drink" memoirs lately, perhaps most notably Torontonian Jowita Bydlowska's Drunk Mom, a harrowing if somewhat unilluminating examination of the author's binges while caring for her newborn son.

Toronto journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston's Drink is not a similar litany of blackouts and bad decisions. Her book is partly autobiographical, but it's a more scholarly affair -- and no less harrowing for it.

Founding editor of the notorious Maclean's university rankings edition and former vice-principal of McGill University, Dowsett Johnston has written at length about women's relationship with alcohol (parts of this book are adapted from a series she wrote for the Toronto Star), but here she takes the brave step of making it personal, grafting her own story onto a series of startling statistics about women and alcohol, and interviewing other female alcoholics about their problems and recoveries.

Dowsett Johnston comes across as smart, self-aware, upscale and likable, but although she's admirably revealing about both her alcoholism and her love life -- she had a wonderful 14-year relationship with Winnipeg writer Jake MacDonald before he unceremoniously dumped her, over the phone, 18 months into her sobriety -- she's weirdly reticent in other areas.

She claims that her alcoholism stems from post-traumatic stress disorder but shies away from describing the stressing event, evidently something horrible that happened in childhood.

She sidesteps describing the circumstances of her departure from her McGill position (circumstances that raised eyebrows at the time -- she left 19 months into the job and received $761,000 in salary and payout), although the timeline would suggest her leaving was tied to her drinking.

However, if Drink has limitations as a memoir, it succeeds as a journalistic examination of the factors causing women to drink in ever increasing numbers.

The breadth of her research and the trends it reveals are staggering.

She argues that alcohol is the new tobacco, a formerly male domain to which marketers have begun to lure women via so-called "alco-pops," fruity coolers that have given hard-liquor companies access to a whole new market.

Their efforts have been aided by women joining the workforce. What was once "You've come a long way, baby" has become "You're one of the boys, baby."

That sentiment leads to women binge-drinking like the boys do, but this is one area where gender parity isn't desirable: the female body is ill-equipped to metabolize the same volume of alcohol (studies show permanent damage done to areas of women's brains from binging).

And it's not just three-martini lunches or nights out with co-workers. Working women with families are still shouldering the majority of the housework, meaning they move from one stressful situation to another, often using alcohol as a relaxant to ease the transition.

Dowsett Johnston, a single mother, recalls the first glass of white wine as she cooked dinner for her and her son as "unhitching her shoulders from her ears."

Particularly interesting is the chapter on FASD, which Dowsett Johnston surmises is much more widespread than commonly believed, because white wealthy women are rarely presumed to drink excessively during pregnancy, so their affected children are diagnosed with ADD or other learning disabilities unrelated to alcohol use.

Dowsett Johnston's arguments encounter some difficulties when she tries to generalize about the reasons women become problem drinkers.

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She interviews many women, but none of their stories seem to mirror her own -- or that of her mother, who became a mean drunk late in life and then simply stopped, limiting herself to two glasses of wine a day, cut with Diet Coke. (Her father also lapsed into alcoholism in his final years and drank himself to death.)

She, and many of the therapists she talks to, claim that alcoholism in women can be traced back to abuse or a traumatic experience, which seems overly reductive.

Where she excels is in describing the romantic lure of alcohol to women -- the way she recounts her love affair with drinking in tandem with her love affair with MacDonald is effective. (She is an admirer of Carolyn Knapp's 1996 memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, and that book's influence is evident.)

There's a huge stigma to being a female alcoholic, but, thanks to advertising and the media, being a woman who can down cocktails with aplomb is glamorous.

For men, beer is a bonding tool; for women, drinking can be aspirational, a way to mimic the happy, beautiful people we see on TV and in the movies -- cosmopolitan Carrie Bradshaw with her cosmos.

And for some damaged women, Dowsett Johnston says, if you feel you don't deserve the fairy-tale wedding, champagne for breakfast is the next best thing.

 

Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A1

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